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Ambrose Akinmusire and the slow crawl toward enjoying new jazz



Outside of the Waffle House on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, I popped quarters into a News and Observer box to read that trumpet legend Miles Davis was dead. Twenty-one years ago last week, I sat right down on the curb in sadness.

I'd wager lots of other suburban white boys did the same thing that morning. In high school, my best friend and I would play air hockey games in his basement timed to cassette sides of Bitches Brew and Miles Smiles. I had most of Davis' catalog note for note in my head, so the loss of Miles felt personal, profound and physical.

But Miles Davis' death is now old enough to drink. Sure, I still play those albums, plus records by Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, Ella Fitzgerald, Ornette Coleman. In the name of cultural competency, I even make my eye-rolling daughters listen to them.

I'm not spinning any contemporary jazz, though, and it appears I'm not alone: After his death, Andy Williams' cheesy sweaters are all over the Amazon jazz best-sellers list. Tony Bennett released the most popular jazz album last year. Davis' 1959 monster Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all time, went quadruple platinum four years ago and, despite tales of a dying industry, still pulls its weight at registers and in shopping carts.

Why don't I have Ambrose Akinmusire, for instance, cued up in my car in anticipation of his quintet's two shows at the Casbah in Durham this weekend? Akinmusire's group is today's answer to Davis' great quintet of the mid-'60s. His new Blue Note album, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, sports the same pensive moodiness and diagonal lines that still push Miles Smiles to repeat listens at my house on Sunday afternoons. Despite possessing the unwieldy academic credentials that precede today's jazz names (doesn't "2007 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition winner" get your blood going?), Akinmusire also has the mystique of an old-school legend. To wit, the lone trumpeter practices year-round on a northern Manhattan park bench overlooking Spuyten Duyvil Creek and the Henry Hudson Bridge.

My inattention is no fault of Akinmusire or his peers, really: I fell off the contemporary jazz bandwagon in the 1980s. The music started to sound too clean and thin, as if the changeover from analog to digital recording filtered out something my brain registered as authenticity.

John Brown, bassist, bandleader and director of the Duke Jazz Program, concedes that's possible. "There's a purist faction that does believe in the perceived integrity that's in [classic recordings]," he told me. "Certainly the music is about spontaneous composition, what happens in the moment. And surely what happens in the moment is not always perfect. So there are some people who would argue that the true music is captured with those imperfections."

When I caught up with Brown, he was in between sessions for a new record by singer Nnenna Freelon, backed by his big band. He reminded me that it's a no-brainer for musicians and producers to use the latest equipment. Digital recording ushered in an era of pristine production values across every musical genre. Our ears acclimated to crisp, pop production.

"Jazz is behind the 8-ball anyway when it comes to swimming with those fish," Brown reckons. "It seems like, in one regard, if you try to preserve it in its pure form with mistakes and imperfections, that it makes the case even harder to build."

Preservation is an important word here. Growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, I used my fake I.D. to get into tiny clubs to hear jazz. Now I buy a ticket for a performance in a 600-seat auditorium. Is jazz becoming a museum piece?

Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald, who's presenting Akinmusire at the Casbah, doesn't think so. He's trying to counteract my generational bind by presenting contemporary acts in venues with a strong cross-generational appeal.

"We were presenting in Reynolds Industries Theater and seeing half to two-thirds houses," Greenwald says. "The Triangle is a community in which people are very attuned to the vibe of the room. And a full room has a kind of energy to it, as does a half-empty room. One of the things that I decided we ought to try doing this year is to present jazz in smaller, more intimate rooms and in social spaces in which people could get a drink."

Those venues—local rooms like Casbah and Motorco—hold a fraction of the on-campus auditoriums. So Greenwald books groups such as Akinmusire's for two consecutive nights rather than one gig. That still offers less capacity (and ticket sales) than one of the bigger venues, but Greenwald draws upon a university endowment from alum Les Brown, bandleader and composer for Band of Renown, which backed television hits like The Steve Allen Show and the Dean Martin Variety Show throughout the 1960s. With the gate at least partially underwritten, Greenwald can attempt to coax jazz fans like me into the 21st century.

"I'm trying to say to listeners like yourself, 'OK, there's a range of different kinds of groups in a range of different kinds of settings this year,'" he admits. "And I want you to not be scared to listen to jazz."

I'll take his word for it and find a sitter: Jazz is as good as ever. I've just become lazy. But I'm not the first suburban white boy to succumb to that, either.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Dust jackets."

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